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Forget the nuclear summit — North Korea's news agency focuses on a fish restaurant

Forget the nuclear summit — North Korea's news agency focuses on a fish restaurant
In an undated photo provided Saturday by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, inspect a newly opened seafood restaurant in Pyongyang. (KCNA / Associated Press)

The rest of the world’s media may be fixated on the meeting here between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with headlines and details about the high-stakes nuclear summitry.

But on Saturday, with three days to go, the top item on the website of the Korean Central News Agency, the government-run media that is the only legal news outlet in North Korea, focused on Kim’s visit to a glitzy new seafood restaurant in the capital, Pyongyang.

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Indeed, the KCNA has largely remained silent on the summit since May 24, when it ran a strongly worded statement from Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui threatening to walk away from the talks.

That led to a weeklong diplomatic roller coaster. First Trump canceled the meeting, then he met for 90 minutes with an envoy from Pyongyang, then he put the summit back on, saying all was forgiven. Behind the scenes, U.S. and North Korean diplomats raced to iron out logistics and an advance framework for the summit.

KCNA has made only passing reference to Kim’s planned meeting with Trump even as it gave detailed reports about his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

While hundreds of journalists from around the globe are descending on Singapore for the summit, it’s not clear how or even if KCNA will cover the event. The cautious approach reflects the sensitivity of how the U.S.-North Korean talks will be perceived internally, Korea watchers said.

“They’ve got to ease the domestic audience into what’s going to happen,” said Michael Madden, founder of the website NK Leadership Watch. “They’re creating the conditions domestically in terms of ideological indoctrination for this to be a success.”

Madden said that after Trump and Kim meet, the most important thing to watch is not what KCNA says but what it leaves out about any agreement or commitment resulting from the talks.

“Like Miles Davis, it’s not the notes you play but the notes you don’t play,” he said.

With little contact between the North Korean public and the outside world, and no polling in the police state, gauging domestic reaction to the summit is difficult, if not impossible. Limited glimpses of internal reaction come from Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that relies on sources within North Korea.

Lee Sang Yong, editor in chief of Daily NK, said their sources reported a crackdown on communication with the outside world in recent weeks, as well as increased signal-jamming, making cell connections in the border region with China more difficult.

Municipal officials and the police have received orders to “strengthen control over the population,” the site quoted one source as saying. “They have been told to focus particularly on collecting information about the popular response to the upcoming summit.”

Lee said reactions within North Korea appeared split between the emerging middle class and marginalized average citizens. Those with business interests spoke of optimism for increased trade opportunities and investment with the potential lifting of sanctions, Lee said, while those with little contact with the outside world seemed puzzled at talks with a sworn enemy state.

“Americans were supposed to be wild dogs, never to be trusted,” he said.

For some in North Korea, warming relations with Washington and any concession of nuclear weapons may be a tough sell, said Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University and a former senior advisor at the State Department.

“The entire society and nation has essentially been told, ‘You and your children and your parents have starved yourselves … in order to sacrifice for our country to survive because the world, and especially the U.S., will annihilate us,’ ” she said. “This is the entire raison d’etre of how this society has not fallen apart.”

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But any wariness will be offset by seeing a North Korean head of state for the first time on equal footing with an American president, analysts said.

“It’s going to make [Kim] look respected and powerful. … He’s setting these ambitious goals and actually coming through on them,” said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center think tank and managing editor of 38 North, a respected academic analysis site on North Korea.

“These kinds of messages do resonate with the segment of the population he cares most about: the elite, moneyed class, especially some of the younger generation,” she said.

North Korea, she said, is skilled at disciplined domestic messaging to spin events in a light favorable to Kim and his government.

For instance, the reported demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site was framed domestically as a gesture of strength after North Korea had achieved its nuclear goals, Town said.

Similarly with the Trump-Kim summit, Pyongyang is probably holding off on informing its domestic audience until it has a victory to report, she said.

“They’re going to report when there are results and pictures, when they have a solid narrative,” she said. “They’re not going to raise expectations. They’re going to control the narrative and make sure it fits whatever objective they have.”

More important domestically than a detailed agreement or commitment from the summit may be the photos and video of Kim standing shoulder to shoulder with the president of the United States, pictures likely to be broadcast around the globe.

“This is a meeting that will have great optics for him in terms of legitimacy,” said Bridget Coggins, associate professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara. As far as the domestic messaging goes, she said, “this is very much a Kim initiative, and the U.S. is acquiescing.”

Coggins said there also could be a very practical reason for not giving away too much information about Kim’s travel plans away from North Korea.

“There are a lot of people out to get him,” she said. “That makes good sense in terms of coup-preventing.”

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